BEIRUT — Mortars rained down on a crowded marketplace in a Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital, killing 21 people as regime forces and rebels clashed on the southern outskirts of Damascus, activists said Friday.
The attack on Yarmouk camp came as the government battled rebel fighters in the nearby Damascus suburb of Tadamon on Thursday evening. Clashes there continued on Friday and sounds of explosions from the neighborhood could be heard as far as the mostly deserted Damascus downtown, with plumes of smoke seen rising into the sky.
The U.N. agency running Palestinian camps confirmed that at least 20 people had died in the shelling of Yarmouk. The Britain-based Syria Observatory for Human Rights, which first reported the deaths, said the mortars hit as shoppers were buying food for the evening meal. The activists with the group would not speculate on who was firing.
"We don't know where the mortars came from, whether they were from the Syrian regime or not the Syrian regime," said Rami Abdul Rahman, director of the Observatory. He added they could also have been strays from the fighting in nearby Tadamon.
The state news agency blamed the bombardment on "terrorist mercenaries" — a term the government uses for rebel fighters — and said they had been chased away by security forces.
The incident highlights the precarious situation of not just Palestinian refugees but all civilians in Syria who are increasingly getting caught in the crossfire of this bloody uprising that has claimed 19,000 lives since it erupted in March 2011. Every day hundreds of civilians are uprooted by the violence, according to the U.N., which estimates that 1.5 million people have been force to abandon their homes but remain in the country.
An online video of the immediate aftermath of the Yarmouk attack showed bleeding and burnt bodies with people rushing about amid the smoke and the sounds of screaming.
Government troops have in the past attacked the camp, home to nearly 150,000 Palestinians and their descendants driven from their homes by the war surrounding Israel's 1948 creation. Palestinian refugees in Syria have tried to stay out of the 17-month old uprising, but with Yarmouk nestled among neighborhoods sympathetic to the rebels, its residents were eventually drawn into the fighting.
Yarmouk's younger inhabitants have also been moved by the Arab Spring's calls for greater freedoms and have joined protests against President Bashar Assad's regime— and have died during demonstrations when Syrian troops fired on them.
The situation of the Palestinian refugees is particularly sensitive because Syria has long cast itself as the principal champion in the Arab world of the Palestinian struggle against Israel. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose government has a strict policy of neutrality regarding the Syrian conflict, condemned the Yarmouk attack.
"The presidency demands an immediate end to all murder and destruction in the refugee camps, and protection to its inhabitants," Abbas' office said in a statement carried on the official Palestinian news agency.
After the mortar attack, camp residents demonstrated against the government, chanting slogans against Assad and praising the opposition Free Syrian Army, according to online videos. The content of the videos could not be independently verified.
With the civil war in Syria getting increasingly vicious, chances for a diplomatic solution to the conflict were fading after the resignation Thursday of Kofi Annan, the U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria. Annan cited divisions within the Security Council preventing a united approach to stop the fighting.
Syria's ally Iran, blamed the U.S. and its allies for Annan's resignation, saying it was their insistence on Assad's removal from power that had undermined the six point U.N. peace plan, which was never implemented.
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